Indian Independence 8,290 miles away: U.C. Berkeley and the Fight for Self-Rule 

By Madhumitha Krishnan (@MadhumithaKris)[1]

‘…[India’s] teeming millions are dying of abject starvation, ever increasing famines and devastating epidemics. The present-day India needs readjustment and reconstruction socially, morally, and economically.’[2] So proclaimed Dr K. D. Shastri in his inaugural address at the 1915 International Hindustanee Student Convention in Chicago. Dr Shastri, a religious and social reformer, levied this implicit anti-imperialist critique at a conference for Indian students at American Universities in the early 20th century. Shastri’s speech very much set the tone for the convention. Every presentation throughout the three days focused on developing an India divorced from Britain: lectures discussed developing ‘Indian industries’, ‘Indian society’, and ‘Indian education.’ Nowhere in this convention is a ‘British India’ to be found, an absence perhaps indicative of the nationalist undertones of this gathering. 

India in the early 20th century was a British colony. Whilst nationalist political activity was being increasingly criminalised, such as with the Defence of India Act 1915 and the Rowlett Act of 1916, students at universities in the United States found a space to further nationalist and anti-imperialist aims.[3] In particular, the University of California, Berkeley, was a locus for independence thought and discourse. The Hindustanee Student, a monthly publication from the Nalanda Club in Berkeley, California, featured articles from Indian Berkeley students and Professors refuting imperial justifications for colonial rule. For instance, in the February 1916 publication, Dr B.K. Sarkar published a critique of the civilizational discourse used by British imperialists, arguing that ‘Neither historically nor philosophically does Asiatic mentality differ from Eur-Americans. It is only after the…Industrial revolution of the last century that the alleged differences between the two mentalities has been first stated and then grossly exaggerated’.[4] 

Of course, The Hindustanee Student was diverse in its aims – it offered commentary on the experience of Indian students in America, provided advice for exams and admissions, and celebrated cultural functions. Fundamentally, however, it was a space for students to develop an Indian identity without an overbearing colonial power. Most of these students returned to India as academics or bureaucrats.[5] Others remained in the United States and went on to write for more explicitly anti-imperialist publications such as The United States of India and The Independent Hindustan. Taraknath Das was a Berkeley student who later became a revolutionary, and was arrested for violating the US 1917 Neutrality Act and securing funds for an armed insurrection in India.[6] Das presented a scathing critique of British rule in the front page of the November 1924 edition of the United States of India, a monthly newsletter published by the Gadar Party in San Francisco, writing that ‘British imperialists are exploiting India for their own benefit and at the same time are informing the world that they are acting in the best interests of the people of India and by their consent.’  

These journals, published out of California, Chicago, and New York, served as a meeting point for the East and the West. They published artwork and writing from independence activists in India (such as the poetry by Sarojini Raj, images included).[7] They also allowed for community among Indians of various backgrounds, connecting those who were not geographically based in India to still contribute to the movement. Thus, these publications highlight the transnational nature of Indian independence; independence emerged not only in the British metropole and its colony, but among its diaspora and in university campuses 8,290 miles away. 

Below and cover image: Poems published in The Hindustanee Student by Sarojini Naidu, an anti-imperialist and formidable figure in the  Independence movement against the British Raj.

Sarojini Naidu, ‘The Gift of India’ in The Hindustanee Student, February 1916, p. 8
Sarojini Naidu,’To India’ in The Hindustanee Student,  April and July 1914, p.48

[1]  Thank you so much to the South Asian American Digital Archive for access to these materials. 

[2] K.D. Shastri, ‘Inaugural Address’ in The Hindustanee Student, September 1915, pp. 4-7

[3] For more information on Indian students in American universities, see:

[4] B.K. Sarkar, ‘Demand for a New Logic’ in The Hindustanee Student, February 1916, p. 5

[5]  ‘News on Students’ in The Hindustanee Student, April and July 1914, p. 53

[6]  Taraknath Das, ‘Rising Tide of Indian Revolt Draws World-Wide Interest’ in The United States of India, November 1924 a

[7]  For more information, see: 

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